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September 21, 2014

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WHERE I STAND:

Pope offers an unexpected gift

Pope Francis recently issued an important statement that could go a long way toward protecting religious minorities. As Rabbis Abraham Cooper and Yitzchok Adlerstein of the Simon Wiesenthal Center pointed out in an insightful piece on foxnews.com last week, the pope’s statement came during Hanukkah, and Jews around the world, who know all too well about religious persecution, readily accepted the pope’s words as a gracious gift. The rabbis’ column is well worth the read, and with their permission, I’m sharing it here. — Brian Greenspun

Pope Francis was probably not looking at the Jewish calendar when he released his new apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium,” (The Joy of the Gospel). It was a serendipitous Hanukkah gift that brought joy to the Jewish world.

The document is full of warmth to Jews and Judaism. It speaks of the growing friendship with the Jewish people and regret for the history of Christian persecution of Jews. Of Judaism he wrote: “We cannot consider Judaism as a foreign religion; nor do we include the Jews among those called to turn from idols and to serve the true God.” It confirms the continued contribution of Divine truth that comes through the “treasures of wisdom which flow from their encounter with his word.”

Pope Francis understands that theology matters. It produces catchwords that galvanize millions. Even in the 21st century, a subtle theological point uttered in a local mosque can cascade into a raging deluge of violence.

The pontiff knows that for centuries, European Jewry was battered by theological cudgels. Early Church figures like Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr and John Chrysostom translated theology into hatred of Jews on the local level, and directly fed the auto-da-fes, the Crusades, and the pogroms that destroyed hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives.

The two theological positions most damaging to Jews were replacement theology and deicide. The former maintains that the Jews of the Bible have been “replaced” by the New Israel, meaning Christians. All covenants and promises in the Bible no longer apply to Jews; they subsequently have no claim to land or history. The latter position holds all Jews responsible for the crime of killing God through the crucifixion of Jesus.

Both of these positions mostly disappeared after the Nazi Holocaust, as Christians came to grips with the contribution that Church-inspired anti-Semitism made to Hitler’s extermination machinery. Catholics scrapped both replacement theology and deicide through the historical teachings of “Nostra Aetate” a half-century ago. Protestants for the most part rejected deicide, affirming that Jesus died, by the Will of G-d, for all sinners. They stopped talking supersessionism and opted to build bridges of understanding with the Jewish people.

Recently, however, Palestinians and their Christian supporters have resurrected the old theological poison. Frustrated by their inability to defeat Israel through conventional warfare or terrorism, they launched a new front attacking the very legitimacy of the Jewish State. Support for Palestinians, they claim, is theologically mandated; support for Zionism — the Jewish people’s return to an ancestral homeland is denounced and denied. The Jewish people’s covenant with G-d was canceled long ago and today’s Jews have no right to reclaim their past or prepare for their future.

One outgrowth of this is a campaign to strip the Holy Land of all Jewish connection, going so far as to deny that there ever was a Temple in Jerusalem, or that Rachel’s Tomb has Jewish significance. It is in vogue to deny that contemporary Jews are even related to those of the Bible, claiming that they are all recent converts having no connection to those of antiquity.

In one of his Easter messages, Rev. Naim Ateek of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theological Center declared “Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him. It only takes people of insight to see the hundreds of thousands of crosses throughout the land, Palestinian men, women, and children being crucified. Palestine has become one huge Golgotha. The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily.” Ateek thereby turned Jesus into a Palestinian and the Palestinians into Jesus, with Jews once more practicing deicide. The Kairos Palestine Document has become the iconic cry of those seeking to rewrite history and denial of any Jewish stake in the Holy Land — all the time citing Scripture. This smacks of de facto replacement theology. Some advocates of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement, cite the arguments of replacement theology as proof that today’s Jews could not possibly claim that their return to the Land was consistent with any Divine promise.

The author of “Evangelii Gaudium” is certainly aware of the importance placed by all of Israel’s enemies on downplaying — and denying — a connection of today’s Jews to those of the Bible. Nonetheless, the language of “Evangelii Gaudium” is emphatic:

“God continues to work among the people of the Old Covenant and to bring forth treasures of wisdom which flow from their encounter with his word. For this reason, the Church also is enriched when she receives the values of Judaism.”

In a time of need, Pope Francis stepped up to underscore the unseverable bond between Christians and Jews, and lauding the continued closeness of Jews to the Divine Will.

What gift might us Jews present to our Christian friends?

When Rabbi Marvin Hier led a delegation from the Simon Wiesenthal Center to the Vatican a few weeks ago, he told the pope that Jews are his allies in protecting the rights of persecuted Christians and other religious minorities, just as he is their partner in fighting anti-Semitism. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has taken the struggle on behalf of an estimated 190 million endangered Christians to world leaders. For those living in daily fear of attack, this Christmas and New Year’s holidays are times of stress and danger.

The Jewish community’s support may not be the greatest Christmas present Pope Francis receives this year, but it will be among the most heartfelt. He’ll feel the love directly when he visits Israel early in 2014. And we can only hope and pray that Pope Francis’ words and deeds will contribute to a new commitment by believers and atheists alike to protect religious minorities.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is director of interfaith affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

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